Cruciformity

My favorite verse in the Bible is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” As much as I love that message of incarnation, I can’t say it’s my life verse. The one I stumbled into for that job, the verse I remind myself of daily and use to make decisions, is far less pleasant (but no less true): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

What can I say? I like the cheery things in life.

Part of my attraction to Luke 9:23 is the role it played in my call to ministry. In a last-ditch effort to avoid it, I decided to do the wrong thing and use my Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. “God,” I prayed, “there are so many different directions I can go in life. Why should I sacrifice those lives for this?” Close eyes; open Bible at random; immediately read Luke 9:23-26. It was a bad method for discernment, I know, or maybe it was my own Augustine “tolle lege” moment. Regardless, it did the trick, and here I am. And every time I think of that verse, it reminds me of the cost of discipleship, that Christ bids a man come and die, that it’s “Not my will but Thine,” and that no matter how rough the road, it will always be worth it.

But crucifixion and cross-carrying, however, metaphorical they may be, are never pleasant tasks.

When we consider how a Christian lives in this world, how one engages one’s culture, we have to keep in mind the painful truths of Luke 9:23. Our lives are to be cruciform, and that has many dimensions. The first is the most obvious: the denial of self, the killing of ego and death of the old creature to become a new creation. I think we often view this as the “negative” side of cruciformity, the “thou shalt nots” of a cross-shaped life. To be fair, there are plenty of those. To be holy is to be other — other than normal, other than sinful. The Bible points to many things absent from a life of holiness: murder, lust, sexual immorality in all its iterations, drunkenness, deceit, etc. We as Christians cannot simultaneously carry a cross and indulge in such things.

Beyond biblical proscriptions lie a host of other choices to be made vis-a-vis the “nots.” A cruciform life takes into account a holistic portrait of living; after all, you can’t crucify only your hand or your foot. So we need to evaluate our other lifestyle choices: books we read, television shows we watch, movies we see, music we listen to, clothes we wear, places we go, company we keep. Careers, hobbies, everything is subject to scrutiny through a cross-shaped lens. And maybe the biggest cross you’ll carry is abstaining from an addiction, turning off the television, or letting go of an old friend. Choices shouldn’t be made lightly, and the underlying question is this: does the practice/show/etc. bring you closer to God, or is it hurting your relationship with Him? If it’s a case of the latter, it definitely needs to go. It just got added to your self-denial, a little extra weight on the cross you carry.

On the flip side, dying to ourselves daily means a series of “thou shalts,” too, and some of those are equally difficult. To deny myself means at times a specific denial of my right to justice, fairness, or vengeance, and instead calls for the love of the one who wronged me. We call this forgiveness. And forgiving someone, as we all know, is incredibly hard at times. It requires us to set aside pride and ego in favor of humility and love — not love of the wrongful act, but of the flawed human being who wronged us, the sort of love that prays for their good. Love itself can seem a burden, for love requires an endless number of self-sacrifices. In short, it requires us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily so we can put the good of others ahead of the good of self. And that’s hard. It hurts.

And it’s worth it. Every step of the way. Because they will know us by our love.

Living a cruciform life, letting every action reflect the cross of Christ and be framed as cross-carrying discipleship is the way a Christian is called to experience this mortal coil. It is how we lose this life to gain a place in the next. It is how we follow our Lord and live for his sake. For his life, too, centered around a cross.

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The B-I-B-L-E

It’s that time again, dear readers. I know I’ve written this message quite a bit, and I know you’re tired of hearing me rant and rave about it, but it’s necessary to address said topic once more. You see, I just got my hands on this year’s State of the Bible report, and it’s . . . well, it’s terrifying.

By now you’re already saying, “This again? This guy worships the Bible.” As a friend once said, the Baptist Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible, but here in the Christian Church, I’ll have you know we have Father, Son, and Holy Potluck (we seem slightly scared of the Holy Spirit, too, to be honest). In all seriousness, I don’t worship the Bible (or the potluck). I don’t think the word of God is God; I know, however, the Word of God is. I will not worship a book, but I will praise the One who is revealed to us in its pages. With that said, it’s easy to recognize the significance of the Bible: it is God’s primary way of revealing Himself to humanity, our best source to learn about Him and His will for us. Nothing which does that can be taken lightly.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to accept it at all.

According to the data gathered by the Barna Group, the number of people who fall on that side of the spectrum is growing. Of the 2,030 adults in the U.S. included in the survey results, 32% never read the Bible at all and only 16% read it daily. More alarmingly to me as a minister, only 93% of practicing Protestants and 88% of practicing Catholics hear the Bible read in church at least weekly. What do they do the other 7%/12% of the time? If we aren’t using Scripture every time we worship, what are we using? What forms the basis for our preaching, the latest issue of Time? If we don’t always read the Bible in our worship services, how can we possibly expect people to always read their Bibles at home? Well, the data are in: we don’t and they don’t, either. In fact, even the desire to read isn’t always there. A full 9% of practicing Protestants and 22% of practicing Catholics say they have no wish to read the Bible more often than they do. Outside the church, among those Barna classifies as “antagonistic” (those who see the Bible as a fully human book designed to control others), that number skyrockets to 91%.

Also frightening to me are the responses to what is being read. I can’t really argue with the 52% (of 668) who feel peaceful or the 49% who are more hopeful after reading Scripture. What bothers me is the mere 1% who feel convicted. That’s right: of the 874 people who responded to the question in 2016, almost nine of them felt convicted or guilty in some fashion. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting the primary function of the Bible is to inspire guilt, but the word of God should encourage us to be better, to sin less, to change our lives, and I can’t imagine that process beginning without a catalyst, a felt need — a sense that something in rotten in Denmark, a prodding of the Holy Spirit’s convicting grace. But I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact a full 7% of 341 respondents read the Bible and give no thought whatsoever to how it might apply to their lives.

There’s no reason to apply it, though, when something else can do the job. Of practicing Protestants, those who consider their faith very important and who worship at least monthly, 98% believe the Bible is a holy book — and 8% believe the same of the Quran, and 1% say no text is sacred. Ten percent believe all so-called holy books are simply different takes on the same faith and teach the same truths, and 13% maintain the U.S. Constitution is more important to teach and maintain morality (not law, morality) in our country than the Bible is. Then again, 6% believe it’s worse to be labeled intolerant than immoral, and 19% see no problem with being called either one, so why bother with a biblical morality at all? Again, these figures are for practicing Protestants. American adults on the whole paint a far more dismal picture.

What is considered unimportant remains unknown; the acquisition of knowledge requires a certain investment of caring about the subject matter. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover 7% of adults surveyed believe Paul was the disciple who betrayed Jesus and 5% think he was the first to see the resurrected Christ (only 56% and 57%, respectively, selected the correct answer from the available options). Moreover 3% believe Scripture says nothing whatsoever about serving the poor, another 3% say the Bible strongly encourages prostitution, and 53% thinks the word of God strongly discourages pornography (with 31% responding it’s totally silent on the subject).

It gets worse. Of a sample of 1,025 adults, few of them let the Bible inform their views on social matters. The following said the Bible has zero influence on their views of these issues: abortion, 47%; LGBT concerns, 53%; refugees, 45%; money, 50%; immigration, 57%; and war, 54%. The numbers for practicing Protestants: 11%, 20%, 12%, 6%, 24%, and 25%, respectively. Not even all Protestant Christians let the Bible speak to how they view the world, and the figures for Catholic Christians are no better. Small wonder, then, no one else consults the word of God on these matters.

Worse than apathy is antipathy. Again speaking of the general populace, 53% believe the Bible is oppressive towards the LGBT community, 37% towards women, and 26% towards various races. Almost one in five (18%) won’t read the Bible at all simply because of their views on homosexuality. But we’re also upset with the moral state of America. A full 81% say morality is declining in the United States, with 39% attributing it primarily to corporate corruption and greed, 33% to the negative influence of the various media, and 27% saying it’s because people don’t read their Bibles enough (the choice of only 55% of practicing Protestants). I can’t deny the influence of Hollywood and Wall Street, but they seem to me to be symptoms rather than root causes. If more people read the Bible and had a personal relationship with the God who inspired it, the symptoms just might get better.

I realize I’ve just thrown a lot of discouraging statistics at you. We can all see the Bible wields increasingly little influence in our society, not least because no one read it and believes it. The obvious solution is to teach it and preach it, to develop new paths of discipleship so as to increase one’s points of contact with Scripture. But that won’t be enough. We must do more to preach Christ and him crucified, to point to the God of the Bible, both in word and in deed. As people come to love God, they will love His Book. As they learn more about the Book, they learn more about God. As they learn more about God, they love Him more, and the cycle repeats. So while we must get more Bible into the hands of more people, we must start with loving them in the name of Jesus. Both components are crucial in making disciples who will make disciples.

That requires us to commit ourselves to the Bible. We, as individuals, need to read it and apply it to our lives. We must adopt a biblical worldview in all areas of life, fix before our eyes a cruciform lens sculpted by the Word of God through the word of God. Only then will we see the lives of others change as they, too, pick up the Holy Bible.

Tolle lege.